June 14, 2000
It's like there was some strange warp in the space-time continuum. Or maybe the cast of a movie showed up on the wrong set! I walked through the stone gate of the fort, on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, into a strange world of contrasts.
Everyone wanted to trade with India. In Medieval times, the Arab traders had a monopoly on the trade route between Asia and Europe. They would cross the mountains and deserts in camel caravans along the legendary Silk Road.
Europeans wanted in on the action and were searching desperately for a sea route. That's why Columbus made his famous voyage westward in 1492, with the radical idea that the world is round instead of flat. I sure hope he was right, or we fearless Worldtrekkers will never get home!
But the British, obviously, were powerful expansionists. Unless you're from Britain, you can thank colonialism for the fact that you speak English! Queen Elizabeth I of England, in 1600, granted a company called the East India Company exclusive trading rights with India. Doesn't it seem odd to you that the British Queen thought it was within her power to decide who could or could not trade with this entire huge subcontinent? The French and Portuguese didn't care, and I bet the Indians didn't even know!
As I look at the cannons and fortress, it's hard to remember the odd fact that this all belonged to a company, one of the first "multinational corporations" ever, and not to a government. Over the next 250 years, the East India Company slowly gained control over all of India and had a huge army made of European officers and local Indian enlisted men. And we complain about the power of multinationals today!
I slip off my shoes (I am still in India, after all), and walk inside what could be a small English church anywhere in the world, until you read the marble memorial stones. This guy was killed in a war in Northern India, that guy was lost at sea somewhere around the Cape of Good Hope. And another poor man was 'killed in an encounter with a tiger.' Bummer of a way to go.
Of the four largest cities in India-Mumbai (Bombay), Delhi, Chennai (Madras) and Calcutta, all but Delhi were founded by the East India Company as ports. From those three main bases, the Company spread its power across the entire subcontinent.
At the time, India was divided into what are known as "princely states." They were small areas, ruled by a local raja. Instead of banding together, these rajas used the patronage of the colonial powers to fund their internal bickering. The Company would make treaties with different rulers, supply them with arms or other support, and then allow them to wipe out their enemies. The French and the British would sponsor different sides of the dispute in areas they wanted to control. Then, basically, the local people would fight it out, and whoever's side won got control of the area. It's the basic ploy of divide and conquer.
Over the course of 250 years, though, things had changed. Missionaries were arriving, and many of the officers and Company employees really treated the Indians poorly. In 1857, a rumor began to circulate that the British were going to force everyone to convert to Christianity, and that they would start by defiling those of other religions.
The Company's glory days ended when they issued new ammunition cartridges to their troops. The top had to be bitten off before being loaded into the gun, and a rumor spread that the cartridges were greased with animal fat. The Muslims were told that the fat was pig fat. Since pigs are considered unclean, to bite pig fat would defile a religious Muslim. The Hindus were told it was cow fat. Since cows are holy to Hindus, biting cow fat would defile them!
Needless to say, all trust was lost between the native Indians and the British. Britain revoked the East India Company's charter, and India became an official colony of Britain. Queen Victoria was named "Empress of India," by the British, of course. I wonder if the majority of the Indian people even knew that there was a change.
The fort left me with a lot to ponder as I walked back outside of its massive walls, into the bustling Indian chaos I've grown to love.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
Abeja - Trading With The Enemy? How One Company Dominated India
Andrew - Follow the Yellow Brick Road (to meet an eight year old monk?)!
Monica - Serving the Poorest of the Poor: Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Jasmine - Village of Angels
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